The reason for Agran's angst was soon evident to Mears and Irvine city officials: the Conservancy may have attempted to pad the publicly funded tree-inventory deal by $20,000.
An informal city staff investigation in February learned that someone at the Conservancy took the tree-inventory bid letter from subcontractor Tom Larson and erased his typed fee of $36,000. Larson is a professional arborist and a business partner of loyal Agran contributor Ray Chaikin. By the time the Conservancy submitted Larson's bid to the park board, it showed a new handwritten amount: $56,000. The Weekly has obtained copies of the conflicting documents.
It is against California law to submit a "fraudulent claim, bill, account, voucher or writing," and city officials say they were worried. On March 25, city manager Allison Hart asked the Conservancy's Simon to explain the discrepancy.
"In an earlier phone conversation with you," Hart wrote, "you indicated to me that the Conservancy proposal included funds for work directly performed by the Conservancy in conjunction with the preparation of the tree inventory bid. Since Larson's proposal didn't reference any funding for the Conservancy, could you please clarify the difference."
A week later, April 1, Simon explained that the Conservancy wanted the money for administrative costs in assisting Larson with future tree work. To the amusement of some of the park board, the Conservancy later claimed it deserved the $20,000 to help "estimate tree-removal costs."
That same day, the park board staff decided to ignore the Conservancy bid. Instead the tree-inventory contract went to Arborpro. That company's report is due later this year.
The staff's decision did nothing to extinguish the firestorm that erupted behind the scenes. "I am disheartened and honestly offended that this organization [the Conservancy] would consider changing an RFP [request for proposal] to show an increase of $20,000 in their tree inventory proposal to supposedly pad their management budget," Councilwoman Christina Shea wrote to city staffers on April 14. "Then, when questioned, creating an excuse, that makes no sense. . . . This action, if true, violates the public trust."
* * *
In the eternal flux of things, $20,000 isn't much. But drawn by Dornan's role in the Conservancy controversy, Agran's critics began looking more closely at the park board's handling of trees and landscaping at the Great Park. One, anti-airport activist Len Kranser, discovered that Dornan had introduced himself as director of Great Park Forestry Trust Inc. at Partners in Stewardship, a November 2003 conference in Los Angeles. Also present at the conference were Tom Larson and his associate Carol Schaffer, identified as principals in the Great Park Landscape Co. That company is not registered with the California secretary of state, but the Great Park Tree Farm is. State documents list Larson and Chaikin as the Great Park Tree Farm's directors. Two weeks after Mears put the brakes on the Conservancy deal, Chaikin created two more California companies in one day: El Toro Landscape Holdings and Landscape Program Management.
Mears and Ward say they're considering a special meeting of the Great Park board to investigate Agran's ties to the new companies. They're likely to get broad community support.
"We want everything done regarding the Great Park to be squeaky-clean," said Kranser. "Mr. Dornan's public problems concern us. . . . Unfortunately, none of this is likely to build confidence in how the park project is being handled."